Turning your research into a scientifically sound, cohesive, and reader-friendly article can be challenging, even if you are a skilled writer. And for those of you who, if given the choice, would rather bathe a feral cat than write an article, the idea of turning that data you worked so hard to collect into a readable article that meets publication criteria of a scientific journal might just turn your stomach instead. Here are a few tips that might help the writing process go more smoothly and increase your chances of acceptance by reputable scientific journal.
1. Be organized! To journal editors and peer reviewers, a poorly organized manuscript implies carelessness and/or a lack of understanding of the subject matter. The simplest tool for creating a well-organized manuscript is the outline. Keep it simple at first by listing the primary parts of the study, and then organize your information under the appropriate headings before beginning the writing process. After that, create appropriately descriptive headings and subheadings, which help break up the text into readable chunks. Only include tables and figures that aid in the clarity of the article. Rather than list data in the body of the article, use tables to display the data and only include highlights or an overview of the data in the text.
2. Be concise and articulate. My father always said (usually after listening to me awkwardly stumble through an argument to let me go somewhere or do something questionable), “If you are unable to verbally articulate your thoughts to me, it’s because you don’t understand them yourself, and that lack of understanding removes any legitimate basis for your argument.” It’s no different when writing a scientific article. You must first thoroughly understand what it is you want to say, and then say it in as few words as possible. Eliminate redundancy between figures/tables and text, avoid unnecessary adjectives, and cut extraneous information. These will only distract the reader and convolute your point. Avoid over-the-top or extreme descriptors (e.g., “The current rate of obesity is horrible.” “The patients absolutely loved the results.”) Likewise, your conclusion should be concise and to the point.
3. Include a proper abstract. Know this: an abstract and an introduction are two very different things. The abstract is a complete and very brief summary of the article that succinctly describes its objective, methods, results, and conclusion. The introduction, on the other hand, introduces the objective or hypothesis of the research and provides background information that explains why this objective or hypothesis is important. Try to limit your abstract to 250 words.
4. Provide ample supportive references that are current. Unless you are stating your own opinion or describing a personal experience (which should be clearly indicated as such) or stating something that is considered very common knowledge to your readership, nearly every statement that isn’t directly related to your study will require a supporting reference. Statements without supporting evidence will be called out by the reviewer or editor, and if too many unsupported statements are made, your article might get returned or rejected. Your own anecdotal observations might be useful and appropriate in certain instances, but, generally speaking, these are not considered sufficient support in a scientific article and should be avoided.
5. Include ethics and patient consent statements. When reporting research involving human data, you should include a statement regarding the review of trial protocol and study conduct by the responsible review or ethics committee and/or that the study was conducted in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration (2013). Same goes for animal studies. Additionally, a statement attesting to having received and archived written consent from all study participants, including photo consent (if photos are submitted for publication), must be included in the article.
6. Include a statement on limitations. A statement describing any limitations of the study should be included at the end of the discussion. Every study has at least one limitation. Description of limitations might or might not be required by the journal to which you are submitting, but the good scientist will include it in his or her article.
7. Learn about the journal prior to submission. Pretty much everything you need to know about a journal is typically found on its website. First, you should determine the quality and legitimacy of the journal. Is the journal published by a reputable publishing company? How long has the journal been in circulation? Does the journal have an editorial advisory board and editorial staff? Is the journal indexed? Next, determine if your article is suitable for the journal. Does your manuscript fit within the journal’s editorial scope and readership? What kind of authorship requirements does the journal have? What is the acceptance rate? What is the copyright policy? If you can’t find the information you need on the journal’s website, it is appropriate to email the journal’s editorial staff, but don’t email them with a laundry list of questions that can be easily answered by reading the journal’s author guidelines.
8. Follow the journal’s author guidelines. Once you have decided on a journal, read the journal’s author guidelines carefully and amend your article accordingly…BEFORE you submit the article. In addition to editorial scope and readership information, author guidelines (usually accessible on the journal’s website) typically provide information on formatting requirements (e.g., how to cite and format the references), ethics criteria, publication process, copyright and indexing, and how to submit the manuscript. Many journals will return manuscripts that are not prepared in accordance with their specific submission guidelines.
9. Have your article thoroughly proofed by someone proficient in grammar and syntax. The most groundbreaking research in the world won’t break much ground if no one can understand it. The occasional typo or “typo” (aka misspelling), misplaced comma, or run-on sentence won’t be a deal breaker. But if the editor and/or peer reviewers must sift through pages of poor grammar, confusing sentences, and/or frequent misspellings and typos while attempting to review your article, the chances of rejection are very high. If you wrote the article in a language other than your native tongue and are worried that your grammar and/or syntax are lacking, or if you are not a strong writer in general, consider employing a professional editorial service or asking a colleague or friend with a strong writing background in that language to read through your paper before submission. Even if you consider yourself a fair writer, having someone else proof your article prior to submission is smart.
10. Don’t be afraid of criticism. No one likes to be criticized, but having your work critiqued by your peers is a wonderful learning opportunity. Accepted or rejected, comments provided by the editor and/or peer reviewers of a high-quality journal can provide you with valuable information that can help you improve your current and future submissions. If you have questions or require clarity regarding a peer reviewer’s or editor’s revision requirements or comments, don’t hesitate on reaching out to the editor for clarification.
The hard work of collecting and analyzing that data is done! You’ve completed your research project and are anxious to share your results with the scientific community. It’s time to turn all that sweat and effort into a neat, comprehensible article. With careful planning, concise writing, and careful attention to journal submission protocol, you are well on your way to becoming a published author.
Elizabeth A. Klumpp
Contributor, Heruka Lifescience & Health Innovations